Friday, 26 June 2015
A Story and Some Thoughts
I have a plethora of thoughts and so I have an abundance of writing because for me that's just how it works. I'm thinking of clearing out my drafts file for this blog as there are many (154 when I last checked) unposted pieces just sitting there, forgotten. Sometimes I am stimulated by an article I've read and other times it's just the life and culture going on around me that gets me going on a certain topic, but what usually happens is that I find something on the same topic which I think is better written and then I sigh mentally and shove my own piece into a corner. Everything has been said before, by someone who said it better. I think this is why I like to write fiction. It seems to me there is room for variation on the same theme. I can explore cultural conditions, human nature, events and experiences in my own unique way and not feel as though I am just parroting someone else.
This is one of my latest short stories, written in response to a prompt from Natalia's Writer's Link Up: When Suddenly I Saw
I didn't use the prompt in a beginning sentence this time, but I believe I did imbed it somewhere near the end of the story in an attempt to play by the rules. So here it is, a little rough and raw and a little longer than the last one.
I'm posting it a bit of ahead of schedule and will link up when I see that Natalia is ready.
And There Will Be Lesbians
“Are you going to the cafe again?” She asked from inside the broom cupboard. I gulped my tea which was getting cold, scooped up the last mouthful of scrambled egg and, still chewing, carried the dirty dishes to the sink.
“Yes, I’d like to” I answered, quickly attacking my dirty dishes with a soapy scrubber. Gran emerged from the cupboard with a look of annoyance and empty hands. She closed the door and sat down at the kitchen table, adding a few things to the shopping list she had begun earlier. A day off work meant doing the shopping and cleaning and Friday had been the day for shopping as long as I could remember. Saturday morning was for cleaning and Sunday was for advanced cooking and food preparation to see us through the busy week to come, washing, chopping, storing or cooking various things to make the weeknights easier. Gran had systems and routines. She preferred to keep busy, she said, and part of keeping busy meant four days a week as receptionist and legal assistant to a young lawyer who had taken over from the old lawyer Gran used to work for. Glancing at the clock on the stove, I realised I’d better hurry.
“I’ll be home for dinner and I’ve taken that macaroni and cheese out of the freezer,” I called out from the hall, shoving my feet into the same pair of boots I wore every day. “I really want you to come with me. Will you think about it?”
Ever since Gran had shown me the poems she’d written years ago, when she was young, I had been trying to convince her to write more and I wanted her to come with me to the cafe and read some of her poems on We Love Words night, but it was going to take a lot of coaxing. I was going to read some of mine for the first time that night; I was nervous as hell and there was still a long day of classes to get through.
“Since when have you ever wanted an audience? Your first words were ‘don’t look at me’,” Gran said laughing, when I told her my plan to read some poems. “I know you are trying to trick me into coming tonight and liking it because you think I will share my own poems next time.”
“I could never trick you,” I said, kissing her cheek and heading out the door. I let her have the last words.
“That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t try.” She called after me.
I saw Gran’s poems on one of those endlessly rainy days that make up at least half the year. Late winter, the promise of spring still distant but we had decided to embark on a closet cleaning process, a sort of pre-spring-cleaning tidy. I was helping Gran sort through her clothing, watching her trying things on and decreeing whether they went into the keep or the donate pile. She hadn’t gotten rid of anything in twenty years and there were items older than I was. “You could open up a vintage shop”, I joked but she didn’t laugh. Not that this didn’t have some humour in it but all of her attention was on something she’d just found. She pulled an old shoebox down from the far corner of the top shelf and placed it on the bed.
“I haven’t seen these in ages,” she said, lifting the lid. Inside were several yellowing pages, some typed and some handwritten. I recognized her handwriting which meant that these probably weren’t a bunch of letters from a past lover as I had immediately hoped they were, though my hopes weren’t completely dashed. They were love poems.
“Did you write them for Maurice?” I asked, curiously peering into the box.
“Oh...no, no these were from long before I was married to Maurice. I was young.” She took one out and glanced over it, then apparently deciding it was not going to reveal any secrets, she handed it to me. I skimmed the words initially but then I re-read them. This was good. This was simple and elegant poetry, not the overblown and sentimental stuff you might expect from a very young woman, the kind of poetry I admit I was inclined to sneer at when my peers wrote it, not being a fan of love poetry. Somehow this was more done with less. There was nothing sexual, and if there had been she probably wouldn’t have handed it to me so readily. I held my hand out for another one. What she handed to me this time spoke of loss and loneliness, immediately conveying the emptiness she felt. Who had this person been and where was he now? Who was my Gran’s great love and why had she not told me she used to write such wonderful poetry? She didn’t show me any more, but tucked the two I had seen back into the shoebox. The elastic band that had been around it had broken as soon as she removed it and lay on the bed like a thin red worm. I don’t know where she put the box after that and she hadn’t spoken of the poems or the unknown inspiration for them since that day.
Gran didn’t readily tell me stories about her life before I came along. With the self-centredness of childhood I had not thought to ask very many questions but now, in my first year of college and pretty much an adult, I felt myself wanting to know things, asking cautiously, not sure where to find the line between appropriate interest and nosiness. Nosiness was something Gran didn’t much appreciate in others and anyone who displayed it was held low in her esteem. She probably wouldn’t think me nosy, it would be natural for me to have questions and of course she answered my questions about my mother. Gran had Mum at eighteen, Mum had me at sixteen, and it had been Gran’s intention to make sure I did not continue this pattern. I hadn’t been interested in boys until fairly recently, or rather, it seemed they had not been interested in me so I busied myself with other things. I remember when Maurice was still alive, we sat in the shady back garden shelling peas before supper and talking about boys. I guess I was twelve, something like that. He told me that there was a secret to making boys interested in you.
“The thing to do with boys,” he said slowly, running his thumb along the seam of the pea pod, “is don’t flirt, be indifferent towards them, have other interests, just be yourself and do the things you want to do.” That way you don’t waste any time mooning over the wrong ones and the right ones will find you very interesting. The less you are interested in them the more they will be interested in you.” Gran had come out to get a bowl of shelled peas from us and she snorted in disgust at this bit of advice.
“The best advice about boys, Crysta-Lynne, is that you should just wait until they are men before you pay any attention to them if at all.”
All these bits of advice just confused me and I wished they wouldn’t worry so much as though I was going to suddenly run off with a boy in the next couple of years. Maurice’s words did stick though, filed somewhere in the back of my brain under the heading: use this someday. There was a boy, or could I call him a man?- in my English class whom I could not stop staring at. I sat in the back so he couldn’t see me staring. I imagined that one of these days he was going to speak to me, since I was definitely busy not flirting with him. Maurice, if he’d still been alive, would have been proud of me. I missed Maurice and I had to suppose Gran did too though we rarely talked of it.
“He was a good man,” Gran said when she spoke of him. Maurice came into our lives when I was around six years old and left, unwillingly, ten years later. He and Gran married at home; I remember that day and my memories are supported by the photo that sits on one of the side tables in the living room. In it, I am small and grinning, wearing a blue dress with a ribbon sash around the middle. Gran wears a cream coloured suit, Maurice a grey one. Maurice has his hand on my shoulder and his other arm around Gran’s slender waist. Her waist is still slender now but her hair is grey. She doesn’t believe in dyeing it. Gran worked for the lawyer even then, and she wore skirt suits at the office but at home she wore denim overalls. At the office she wore her hair in a chignon but at home she often just tucked it behind her hears and let it hang loose. Sometimes Gran is two different women; she keeps a strong separation between her public and private lives. People think she is my mother because she is the right age for that but she never wanted to pass herself off as my mother. She said that would not be accepting reality and Gran believes the best thing we can do in life is face reality. When Maurice died, she faced the reality. “It’s a good thing he didn’t suffer long,” she said, of Maurice. “He’s gone and we just have to get on without him now.”
As the macaroni and cheese warmed in the oven, Gran and I made a spinach salad. She asked me about my day and I asked about hers, as we always did, and she mentioned that she’d had an e-mail from Shirley who had come for a visit this past summer. I’d only met Shirley once before, when I was very small and had no actual memory of that time. Gran didn’t talk about her much because Gran didn’t talk about anybody much, which was both a frustrating and admirable quality. Shirley was a mystery who fascinated me because I knew that something had happened early in her life that troubled Gran.
Before the summer visit, what I knew was that Shirley was Gran’s cousin, was several years older than Gran and she was beautiful. “So naturally beautiful,” Gran said, that everyone’s eyes followed Shirley, everyone’s hearts followed Shirley.”
This was a bit startling. Not that Shirely was so beautiful but the way Gran bothered to mention it. She wasn’t generally given to poetic descriptions. I’d seen pictures of Shirely, a few of them when she was young, teens or early twenties maybe. She was certainly pretty, with long, loose hair and bell bottomed jeans. She didn’t wear makeup or dresses. She wore a black velvet ribbon around her throat. Shirley, Gran said, had married the son of a family friend and moved away. When Gran got a little older she began a correspondence with Shirley and I like to imagine they were close, poured their hearts out to each other, but I don’t know. Gran has not told me, of course, what they wrote about.
I remember that night, making supper before the poetry reading at the cafe, like it was somehow connected to Shirley’s visit, though they happened about two months apart. Shirley arrived in a blue rental car, a Toyota, and she dragged a canvas duffle bag out of the trunk. Gran and I scurried out of the house to welcome her, both of us nervous, I think. Gran and Shirley hugged each other and I awkwardly held out my hand. “Hi, I’m Crysta-Lynne.” I mentally cringed every time I said my name, the result of a very young mother’s sense of whimsy, but I didn’t care for any of the short alternatives either. She held out a tanned and neatly groomed hand, shortish nails, two or three thin gold rings, and clasped my hand, not in a traditional handshake but just all of her fingers clasping all of my fingers.
“Laura you look just the same as you always have!” Shirley declared, looking Gran up and down, taking in the denim overalls, brown sandals and long, greying braid. I can hardly believe all this time has passed since I last saw you and I also can’t believe I let it pass.”
“I am just as much to blame as you.” If she had been nervous at first, Gran didn’t seem to be now. She grabbed the duffle bag and linked her arm through Shirley’s. “Do you want tea, coffee, or something cold to drink? Crysta will show you your room while I get us something.”
Our house had three bedrooms though we’d had to clean up the third one a bit before Shirley’s arrival. It had become the defacto storage room but according to Gran expecting company was always a good way to force a bit of tidying and sorting. With that done, the room was plain but cheerful, painted a soft butter yellow and with deep blue curtains and bedding. Earlier in the day Gran had gathered a bouquet of cornflowers from the garden and I had made sure there were clothes hangers in the closet. We’d never had a guest come to stay. How long Shirley was staying was not yet known, but the dufflebag seemed heavy. She asked me to help her put her clothes away, and pulled out some sundresses and some baggy drawstring pants with matching flowing tops. She placed two small and slightly battered looking gift bags on the bed, what looked like a pair of pyjamas, a washbag, a cardigan and a novel. I felt as though I should be making conversation but I wasn’t sure what to say. I was mainly trying not to stare at her. Gran had been right, she was beautiful in person, something about the way she moved and smiled had more to do with her beauty than her symmetrical features, blue eyes and straight teeth and there was something musical about her voice.
“How has your Gran been?” She asked me as I hung her clothes on the hangers. I’ve been so busy sorting out my own life, I just can’t believe how much time has gone by. I’m so ashamed of neglecting her. I said that Gran was fine, which as far as I knew was the truth. She smiled at me and gestured towards the doorway with her head. “Shall we go and find her now?”
Gran had made coffee, which was what Shirley wanted, and a pitcher of lemonade was also on a tray with glasses. I was the lemonade drinker but normally it was not presented to me so formally. I helped carry a tray and we sat outside in the shade under the maple tree. I suppose this all made a strong impression on me because it was so new and unusual and I was excited by Shirley’s visit. It all seems so ordinary now, of course, but I was younger and less experienced then and had so little connection to any family. Eventually I learned things, though it happened over the three weeks Shirley stayed. In my mind what I learned and that first day with Shirley, the afternoon in the shade of the tree, those are all linked together as one event.
Shirley was a lesbian, she told us. Always had been. I looked at Gran to see her reaction and did not see shock as I’d expected. She nodded solemnly. “Iit can’t be easy for you.”
“Well, no, it has pretty much been a bit of a disaster and perhaps it’s obvious but I’ve left Raymond and I’ve lost some friends and this is really the beginning of a whole new life. I didn’t want to make this big change without putting you in the picture. I know you saw what happened with Jenny years ago, but I didn’t really know if you understood what had happened. Jenny has come back into my life. Actually to be honest she was never gone but..”
“Shirley you don’t have to tell me. You don’t have to explain anything.”
“I know I don’t, Laura, it’s not that. It’s that I love Jenny, we are in love and always have been and so many people are going to enjoy this scandal but I just need you to know that the real tragedy is we were separated, by convention and meddling parents and cultural circumstances and it should never have happened. They should not have read my private letters in the first place.”
Gran nodded slowly, a funny look on her face as Shirley went on.
“And you’ve known all these years that I was living a lie and I thought I had to hide everything. I’ve been writing to you for years about my sham of a life and you knew. I thought I was alone with my horrible secret and then as time went by and these things became more accepted I felt guilt about my shame. I was supposed to be out and proud, not hiding and ashamed. I never had children; Raymond couldn’t and he wanted to adopt but I didn’t. I said I couldn’t raise a child that was not mine but that was a lie too, like everything else. I didn’t want to bring a child into my mess.”
Through most of my childhood I mainly remember Gran trying to make me stronger, not wanting me to get so deeply hurt over things, worried that I didn’t have thick enough skin, like that time I came home from school crying because the girl who had been my best friend since kindergarten had just decided to be best friends with someone else.
“Crysta-Lynne,” Gran said to me. “If something like this devastates you how are you going to survive in life? How are you going to cope with all of the difficult things life is going to throw at you.” When telling my troubles to Gran lead to this sort of comment too many times I started keeping a diary and I guess that means I have Gran to thank for my wanting to be a writer. I began to write in my diary constantly. I took it everywhere, writing my thoughts, feelings, observations. Much of it is embarrassingly childish but it began a passion to express myself with written words. Gran didn’t particularly seem to approve of this approach either. “Be careful about what you write,” she said to me one day. “Never write anything down that you wouldn’t want someone else to see.”
I thought this overly dramatic and silly. Who was going to find my diary or even care?
Shirley and Gran had so much to talk about, so much to catch up on and explain and share and talk over that I felt a bit like an intruder so I left them alone together most of the time though Shirley didn’t give me the impression she needed to keep her conversation private from me.
A few days after she arrived, she even suggested that I might want to come stay with her and Jenny some time. “If you would be comfortable with that,” she added. I didn’t know if she meant comfortable despite their being lesbians or comfortable despite my barely knowing them.
About a month after Shirley had come and gone, I sat with Gran on her bed, looking again at her poems, romantic, passionate, full of longing, I was unable to connect these poems, these ideas and this language to the grandmother I had known all my life. “Who are they about, Gran?” I blurted out the question before I had time to mentally talk myself out of asking it. She folded up the paper she held in her hand and tucked it back into the box.
“I was very young. Too young to have a boyfriend,” she began and I thought I was hearing the beginning of another family scandal. “They are about Shirley. Shirley doesn’t know, hasn’t ever seen them, but I worshipped her, so I watched everything she did. When I overheard our mothers talking about what they had read, what had lead them to understand the nature of the relationship between Shirely and her friend Jenny, I thought they had read my poems. I thought that somehow I had betrayed my beloved Shirley by writing about her secret.
Gran had tears in her eyes and I suddenly saw so much that I had never seen before, her guilt, her worry, her vulnerability. I felt tremendous love for her and a desire to protect her. I felt old and wise. “Gran,” I said, touching her arm, “it was not your fault and your writing did not cause Shirley’s troubles. It’s okay for you to write again. It’s okay for you to share those poems. Gran you could read them at the next cafe poetry reading night. You should come with me.”
“I’ll think about it,” she replied. “I have to admit I have started to write again after all these years.”
“You could come to the cafe for We Love Words and just observe and then decide, maybe you could read some that night or wait for another time. You don’t have to make up your mind until the last minute. The women are so nice, so many different, really cool people. You will like them, Gran. And there will be lesbians.”
Gran gave me a stern, sideways look. And then she laughed.